This was not a game which Derby won through footballing excellence. It was a game they won through hard work.
We knew exactly what Reading were going to try to do. Under Jaap Stam, they play the Dutch passing game, taking the short option at all times on principle. We know how beautiful that can be when the opposition lack the energy or bravery to shut it down. We also know, from painful experience, how badly it can go wrong if the opponents push as high as they can and refuse to allow the keeper and defenders time to play.
Derby were lucky to go in at 1-1. They did nothing to deserve their equaliser in the first half, having been guilty of allowing Reading to settle into their rhythm and dictate terms. Swift’s opener was as predictable as it was exasperating and at that stage, Derby were a remote second best. There are times when I’m unable to celebrate a goal and Bent’s was one of them, but it was a stroke of fortune which the Rams had to capitalise on.
And they did. Derby presumably got a bollocking at half time, because in the second half, they did to Reading pretty much what Leeds had done to them last week. They pressed as high as they could. The purist game which looks so slick when it’s working is best disrupted by haranguing the worst players in the side – the defenders and goalkeeper. We know this and finally, we did it. We forced the inevitable errors and we profited with three points. Ince’s goal looked like a present, but of course it was actually the result of hard work and a bloody-minded determination not to allow them to play.
It was perfect timing that Hughes netted as Stam waited to make a double change. The third goal was a blessing and a curse, because it gave us a cushion, but also proved to be the cue for the Rams to retreat a bit, stop harassing Reading and let them settle into their passing game again. It said something about Mac’s lack of faith in his threadbare bench that he refrained from making any changes until the last few minutes, because there was a clear need for fresh legs well before then.
Méïte made a difference with his mobility – and was granted an infuriating free header from a corner to make it 3-2 – but fortunately, with McClaren finally using his bench to create something akin to a back six, it was too little, too late for visitors who were left to settle for the moral superiority of 65 per cent possession.
A word for Marcus Olsson, who was well involved in the Hughes goal and who put in an impressive shift for a player only just returning to the side from a hamstring injury. He looked as edgy as anyone else in the first half, but he kept going, felt his way into the game and made a telling contribution in the end, making his way into the box for the shot which was blocked into Hughes’ path for what turned out to be the winner.
And a word too for the South Stand, for their magnificent “we’ve got the ball” prank in injury time. It was just beautiful – a gleeful lancing of the Reading supporters’ naive enjoyment of Stam’s possession-based system. Because referee Peter Bankes didn’t have a clue what he was doing, he probably only added on about half the time the Rams fans wasted. And Reading can’t complain about it, because they had been time-wasting from about the twentieth minute, right up until the point when they went behind.